In Crowded Court, 'Judy’ Rules

Executive Producer Douthit laments genre glut

The cacophony of gavels banging on daytime television may be growing louder every year, but it hasn’t managed to drown out the wit and wisdom of the irrepressible Judith Sheindlin, star of the top-rated syndicated court show, Judge Judy.

Eight jurists are already chasing CBS Television Distribution’s Judy, and more are on the way. Sony Pictures Television’s Judge David Young is due this fall. Warner Bros. has former Westchester County (N.Y.) District Attorney Jeanine Pirro on hold for a possible court show after signing her for its planned—and ultimately scuttled—Celebrity Jury. And last week, Larry Seidlin, the probate judge in the Anna Nicole Smith case, met with syndicators, networks and producers eager to do business with him by fall 2008 or sooner (see Fast Track, 4/2).

But 11 years after its debut sparked renewed interest in court shows, Judy leads the pack. The program is averaging a 4.8 rating this season, level with a year ago, and has led the genre for more than 550 consecutive weeks.

Randy Douthit, who has been Judy’s executive producer and director from the start, says the seemingly endless parade of court shows is “a sad commentary on the syndication business.

“I know this is a fairly conservative business and that syndicators want to go with what works, since it costs a lot to develop shows,” he continues. “But they are guilty of cannibalizing each other. Most of these court shows are lucky to get above a 1 rating today.”

A 35-year TV industry veteran, Douthit has played major roles in developing several long-running shows. In addition to CNN’s Larry King Live, he developed the network’s Crossfire and The Capital Gang, both of which ended in 2005 after 23 years and 16 years, respectively. After a decade at CNN, he went on to executive-produce talk show Jenny Jones and serve as the executive in charge of NBC sitcom Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.

Douthit attributes the success of Judy and King (which debuted in 1985 and is marking its host’s 50 years in broadcasting) to news-producing techniques he learned in his early years working in local television—that, and allowing the on-air talent to shine by staying out of their way.

“I develop talent organically,” he says. “Whatever they feel comfortable doing, I don’t take them too far away from that.”

In developing Judy, Douthit borrowed the quick pace and hot temperament of Crossfire. But he largely allowed the sharp-tongued Sheindlin, whom he calls “one in a billion,” to bring order to the court on her own.

Sheindlin, in turn, credits Douthit with the show’s winning streak. “Randy is the choreographer of our program,” she says. “From day one, his wise judgment and television savvy have led our show to a super-successful 11 years.”

With Judge Judy and, to a lesser extent, companion Judge Joe Brown occupying the strongest time periods on station schedules, other court shows have had to fight for a seemingly endless array of lesser slots.

But Judge Seidlin, of Anna Nicole fame, could emerge as a real contender. Since demonstrating a flare for drama during the televised trial over custody of Smith’s remains, the Florida jurist has many in the industry believing that he has the chops to find a place among Judge Judy and others in the genre. Some are predicting that stations will jump at the chance to give him one of the choice slots reserved for their top performers.